The Fecundity of Nothingness and the Poverty of Plenitude

The first thing that human beings are confronted with is lack. When we were born we did not have what we needed to have in order to be satisfied. Even at the very moment of our birth we were confronted with lack. The baby feels hunger and is drawn instinctively to the mother’s breast in order to relieve the painful feeling of lacking something. Confronted with lack, the baby will cry until it is satisfied. Although, as we emerge from the trauma of infant lack, we later develop the ability to feed ourselves and provide for our basic physical needs, the painful sense of lack or deprivation will continue to follow us in one form or another for as long as live.

Yet this sense of lack should not be considered necessarily or even primarily as something negative or harmful. This sense of need and deprivation is what teaches us to think creatively – to prepare tools, to light fires, to build shelters. Anthropologists and sociologists have long acknowledged that this sense of discontent is inherent in the dynamics of human desire and is in fact the very foundation of civilisation. As Sigmund Freud once rather crudely said, the man who feels sexually frustrated finds a creative outlet for his discontent by erecting (this wordplay for Freud was quite deliberate) a cathedral or a castle. The creative effort arises from a perceived discontent or lack of something. In a very real sense, it can be affirmed, therefore, that absence and lack supply the basic impulse for human creative endeavour.

We live in an age of material plenitude on a level that is matched only by a corresponding level of imaginative stagnation and spiritual impoverishment. We are surrounded by material abundance on every side. We have all sorts of consumable goods at our immediate disposal. The only apparent limit to our greed is the conceptual span of our imaginations and the size of our wallets. This plenitude is seen in a culture that is obsessed with the proliferation of disposable consumer goods, most of which (such as mobile phones, iPhones and mp3 players) are designed intentionally in such a way that they will cease to work within two years, so that the customer can try out the latest ‘upgrade’.

It is precisely because we live in an age of such apparent plenitude, that we in the affluent West are often psychologically disposed to underestimate the power of nothingness and absence as the primal metaphysical modes of presence in our lives (see final chapter of John O’Donohue, Anam Cara). Emptiness is the hidden presence that always lurks behind abundance. For all our apparent material abundance, we are surrounded by the ever-imminent prospect of our own oblivion: the abyss of non-being, our own death.

Our culture exhibits an underlying fear of death, the threat of which no amount of technological sophistication, scientific advancement or even medical innovation can confront. In our age, we try to package death as a media event or delegate responsibility for it to ‘professionals’ such as doctors, funeral directors, priests and health workers in the hope that we can thereby deny or at least postpone its unpleasant reality. Instead of living responsibly with an appropriate relation to the fact of nothingness or awareness of our own mortality, we attempt to smother our consciousness of this unpleasant fact under an endless pile of designer clothes, fashion accessories and ornamental tat.

Although I do not want to encourage a kind of morbid fixation on death, I would make a plea that we should live with a proper awareness of presence of nothingness and emptiness in our lives, the deepest manifestation of which is death itself. I make this appeal in the conviction (shared by some of the greatest philosophers as well as by most major religious traditions) that such awareness is a vital precondition for living with hope. Hope that has not passed through the fire of experience, that has not stared into the abyss of despair, is no hope at all but facile optimism.

Apart from the prospect of death, the cessation of our existence, how else does the power of nothingness exert itself in and through our lives? Take for instance the apparent absurdity of our own lives, a ripple in the élan vital that meanders purposelessly through an abyss of oblivion and then terminates in the emptiness of death. We are born out of a void of non-existence, a place of nothingness, and suddenly, through no design of our own, we are thrown completely involuntarily into a strange, unfamiliar world. Once in the world by the accident of birth we are then assigned the task of making sense of our lives by surmounting the chaos, chance and sheer absurdity of our irregular, disordered existence in order to create a meaningful interpretive framework into which we can try to fit the separate strands of our seemingly contingent existence.

For the sake of living authentically and hopefully in the world, it is essential that we devote our attention to the interpretive framework that we have adopted in order to make sense of our lives. For some, this will be the hedonistic framework through which all experience is valued according to the degree to which it can maximise personal pleasure. For others, the framework may be supplied by a particular religious tradition, which not only regulates conduct in relation to specific ethical contexts, but also provides an overarching worldview concerning what kinds of experiences contribute to the good, the true and the beautiful as defined by that particular tradition.

The purpose of this essay is not to make a case for the virtues or any particular framework over and against another. Rather the goal is to provoke thought and to raise awareness of the fact that the reality of nothingness makes it necessary to embrace a way for living that can transcend this threat of meaningless nihilism that accompanies the abyss of non-being. I hope that the concepts and vocabulary associated with the passion for the possible can provide the rudiments for the construction of viable responses to these threats.

The Illusion of Individual Freedom
The Crucified Creation

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As a loyal and long-suffering supporter of Middlesbrough FC, he has had to learn the theological virtue of keeping hope alive, even in the most hopeless circumstances!

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